A Thought on Populism & Localism

Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning.  Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.

 

Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:

 

“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”

 

I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.

 

Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.

 

A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”

 

The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.

Technological Change

Colin Wright reflects on his place in the world in his book Come Back Frayed, which is about his time living in the Philippines at the requests of his fans and readers. During his time outside the United States, he commented on the technology he used to document his experiences, the changes he has seen in information technology over his life time, and the uneven distribution of technology between places like the United States and the Philippines. Regarding technical change, Wright writes, “The internet revolution happened when a technology was made common, cheap, and widely available to people of the world.”

 

Wright focuses on the last part of his quote and highlights the fact that not everyone is operating with equal tools, “Which brings me back to the smartphone,” continued Wright, “Science fiction author William Gibson famously said, “The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.” So what happens when it is?”

 

I really enjoy the way that Wright introduces technology, technological change, society, and social change. In the United States we tend to be so focused on our technology that we forget how much of the world goes without the basic necessities we take for granted. Much has been written and many have made better comments than I can on the inequalities that exist between countries, but Wright brings up a point not often considered. When the rest of the world is in possession of game changing technology, what will we think of the technology? How will societies react? What will it mean for political regimes in rich  countries? The United States has seen debates about how information is handled on public versus private email servers over the last two years, and currently has a president who often has a questionable use of direct social media platforms. How could these same technologies impact less developed and less wealthy countries?

 

Wright’s thoughts aline with a passage I recently read in a public administration class at the University of Nevada. Joseph Nye Jr. in 2002 wrote for the Brookings Institute a piece titled Information Technology and Democratic Governance and he highlighted the role of technology as an agent of social and political change. Nye wrote that social and political change often lag behind the technological change, with political change falling in behind social changes. Combining his thoughts with Wright’s, we get a sense that the large changes that seem to dominate American life, are still building toward their greater impact. Once the technology we enjoy in the United States has become more commonplace around the world, we will begin to see more social change, which will be slowly followed by political change.